Coal Camp Girl

Stories that describe the work and lives of people in the past are interesting to me. In this instance, I am writing about Coal Camp Girl by Lois Lenski. She began working on this story in 1943 . . . almost 80 years ago! After many years of contemplation and setbacks, this book was finally published in 1959. “All the incidents described in this book are true—including that of the three lost boys—and have happened in real life to living people in the area.” Fascinating!

Lois Lenski is known for her children’s picture books and stories. The regional stories came about because of her ill health and the need to travel to warmer climates. She remarks that in her travels, “I saw the real America for the first time. I saw and learned what the word region meant as I witnessed firsthand different ways of life unlike my own. What interested me most was the way children were living.”  

This comment really struck me. I am focused on my life in my region with my own family. How often do I wonder how life might be different for families, even now, in another part of The United States? Not too often, I’m sure. I love that I get a chance to look back, and to contemplate the differences in how work and life were accomplished then, compared to how they are now.

Lenski began writing of the regions on her way to Florida, where she would spend the winters. The books were a success, and as more children read her stories, they began to write to her asking her to write about them and their regions, and the series was born. 

Linden, West Virginia is the home of the Wilsons: Daddy, Mama, Celia, the oldest daughter (19), who is widowed and has a baby, big brother Jeff (12), Tina (9), and little brother Ronnie (5). They are a generations-old mining family. Coal mining is the only work they have ever known, and most likely, always will be. Daddy’s motto is, “Once a miner, always a miner!”

The coal camp, or Company town, is a mixture of homes built many years previously by the coal company. Once houses were bright and new, but are now haggard and worn; not unlike the citizens themselves. Still, the families have their pride, and they live and work very hard to maintain their homes.  Other homes have been boarded up and abandoned by families who have moved elsewhere to more profitable, dependable ways to make a living.

Each day ends with a whistle, and Tina and her brother race to meet Daddy on his way home. In spite of their lack, he nearly always manages to save a surprise for them in his lunch bucket. Tina wants to be first to win the prize!

As the camera pointed at their lives pans back, we see a little more. The Company has bath houses for the men to use after their shift, but the downside to this amenity is that the men must pay a fee to use them. Daddy prefers to bathe at home. Click . . . it’s a snap shot showing that he must save his pennies every chance he gets. Click . . . the water used at home is drawn from a spigot in a neighbor’s yard that is shared by four households. Click . . . water must be carried home for cooking, bathing, cleaning and laundry. Click . . . coal has to be stored at home for heating, cooking. Hmmm . . . would I like that to be my chore every day? Are my biceps up to that task? How would you fare?

I appreciate that the family attempts to communicate their hopes and fears to each other. They talk about the hard work, low pay, hard and good times, and, in spite of seemingly minor differences of opinion, they stand up for each other. Oftentimes, children get kept in the dark from family concerns.  The Wilsons seem to be pretty straightforward with theirs. The looming prospects of lay-offs, injury, deaths and farewells to friends moving away are in front of them all the time. It’s hard to hide anything. 

In a take-your-niece/nephew-to-work moment, Uncle Jack takes Tina and Jeff on a tour of the mine company office, showing them its reports, time sheets, and injury charts. There is also a large map of the mine’s tunnels.  It looks very similar to a city map.  This mine is three miles into the side of the mountain! Then, oh joy, they get to look inside the mine! Uncle Jack says, “It might be good for you to see how your daddy and Uncle Jack have to go under the ground where it is dark to make a living.” That really took me back to when I would go to work with my dad in his logging truck, but that is another story. What a great way to learn the ways of family life away from the house! Jeff is warned to stay away from abandoned mines. They are dangerous, with cave-ins and gas pockets, and it’s easy to get lost.

Though the whistle blows for the end of shift, there can be ambulance sirens and whistles for cave-ins that keep people on edge as well. During extended lay-off times, the families suffer from severe want and hunger. Pride has to be let go by the wayside to accept some emergency rations so the family doesn’t starve over the winter! Click . . . I have never fainted from hunger while I was at school. Click . . . I have never had to decide which of my children would benefit more from either a pair of shoes or a new winter coat, and . . . click, click, I have never had to shake my head and put both items back on the shelf, reach for the duct tape, and “repair” a shoe to make it hold out a little longer.

Some of the neighbors aren’t so neighborly. They are jealous of others who are not laid off. Some are better at saving their money for “rocking chair days,” others are not. Huh! Sounds like familiar situations now, doesn’t it?  Children are bullies in any era, and some try to steal the pay envelope from Tina and her brother as they come home from collecting on payday. Even girls beat up on other girls out of spite.

This story is meant for ages 8 and up. As we always say, “You know your child.” Some of the themes can be hard. This is a real story about real people. There is death of animals, men get trapped in a mine, some boys get lost in a mine and all seems hopeless, a man is hurt and is hospitalized, a girl gets badly burned in a freak accident. Nothing is graphic, but you might want to read ahead a bit if there is sensitivity to scary things (Minor spoiler . . . no one dies). In spite of the grit of the story, there are happy times; the kids play favorite games, sing favorite songs, play with ponies (every 9-year-old girl’s dream), and there is even a wedding! Living through these scenes with these people touched my heart. I hope it will also touch yours.

This book was republished in 2021 by our friend, Jill Morgan at Purple House Press. Thank you, Jill!

You can purchase this book directly from Purple House Press. Jill suggested that we also link as a reputable place to buy their books as Bookshop pays a small affiliate link to us and supports bricks-and-mortar book stores. It is a great way to support those who love books the way you do. You can find this book in hardcover and paperback.